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Methods of Game Balance: An [e-Sports Dail-e] Special Report

Sitting down the other day discussing current economics with a friend of mine I realized a certain parallel that could be drawn from different economic theories to different ways of balancing a game – these two methods being a Reaganomics-style of “trickle-down” balance that involves taking statistics and behaviors of high level players and tournament results into account. The other form of balance involves balancing for the masses, taking more stock in results from online ladders and other more casual forms of play. The question is which of these forms of balance is the correct way? It is this question I will set out to answer in this article.

Trickle Down Balance

The so called Trickle Down Theory of Balance, as I said above, involves analyzing behaviors of players in a tournament setting and taking stock in results of tournaments to make balance decisions. In many games, companies that decide to balance for the masses first rather than professionals are filled with cheap methods of play, which can range from anything to a specific combo being spammed that is neigh-unblockable to a timing window that is impossible to react to in a RTS games, such as Starcraft II.

Some developers, however, decide to get involved with their communities and really analyze tournament matches to discover inbalances in games. An example of this: Capcom recently attended EVO 2011 to closely watch the Super Street Fighter 4 Arcade Edition tournament to discern if claims of inbalance by the community at large were justified. As it turns out, Capcom decided to completely retune the game again after seeing how overpowered certain characters were, especially Fei Long, Yun, Yang and C.Viper. They decided this based primarily on the percentage of players that were using these characters and by analyzing that certain movesets were just being spammed over and over again.

So, what are the pros and cons of this form of game balance?

The Pros

• Gamers in the top tier of play feel like the developer cares about competitive play and listens to player feedback. • Leads to a game where strategies that don’t require much thought are easily counterable. • Strategies that are risky can be punished effectively

The Cons

• More Casual gamers may complain that companies are pandering to the professional scene too much • Requires a longer period of time for a game to become balanced • Has a much smaller testing pool than primarily relying on online results

Balancing for the Masses

Most companies rely on the method of balancing that primarily examines online ladder and ranked matches for game balance. While this does take the casual gamer into account more fully than the professional method and provides a wider testing field, it rarely takes the actual strategies that players are using into account. This method looks at percentages of wins/losses and that’s really about it. If a player goes to a company with a complaint of imbalance and the win/loss ratio does not support this claim, the company just says that you’re obviously doing something wrong. Blizzard in particular is notorious for this – they are widely known for making arbitrary changes to units that really have nothing wrong with them instead of fixing fundamental design flaws for fear of affecting these win/loss ratios too much and creating unrest among the community.

So what are the pros and cons of this method?

The Pros • Less time is required to find balance issues, as developers are not waiting for several tournaments to pass. • Wide testing field • Casual player-base is considered as well as higher level play

The Cons

• Harder to see the specific strategies that are being abused. • Players crying foul are swept to the side in most cases. • Conflicting feedback from the player base – some players will claim that certain things are overpowered when they aren’t.

Which is Superior?

Given the pros and cons of each, I believe that balancing around tournament results and high level play is more advantageous. Balancing around pros would lead to a more developed community that would teach casual players more advanced strategies, bettering everyone in the long run, rather than having an unbalanced game where spamming strategies that require little thought to win is commonplace.

To be clear, balancing any game where characters and races each have different resources is quite difficult, and I’m not discounting any given developer for not being able to balance a game – I simply believe that working with high-level players leads to a more balanced environment in the long run.

Dustin Steiner is Gamezone’s eSports Correspondent! Follow him on Twitter @SteinerDustin

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Dustin Steiner I'm GameZone's eSports Correspondent and resident fighting game guru. I'm also Event Coordinator for Video Gaming Hard Corps, where we host online and local tournaments in addition to have general fellowship among gamers. Check us out! http://www.videogaminghardcorps.com
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